Q&A with Julia Koets
Julia Koets’s new book, The Rib Joint, is a strikingly beautiful series of interwoven non-fiction essays that invite us into her childhood and adult life, all while giving us a fresh take on what the genre can entail. Within these stories lie events that have challenged Koets's notions of love and identity. From them, she has created an enchanting voice that is unabashedly sincere; it comes from somewhere real, yet all her own.
We conjured up a few questions for Koets in hopes of gaining a better understanding of the process behind this new collection. Here’s what she had to say:
Miracle Monocle: Where did this book start? Did it evolve essay by essay or did you always have a book in mind?
Julia Koets: If I trace the book back to its origins, it actually started as a play. Five or so years before I started writing drafts of the essays in The Rib Joint, I wrote a play-in-verse about my time working at a barbeque restaurant in my hometown and the complicated relationship I had with my best friend. I titled it “The Year of BBQ.” The play itself was bad, but, when writing the early essays that later became the basis for The Rib Joint, I often referred back to bits of dialogue and scenes I’d written in that play. Because I wrote the play so soon after graduating college and working at the barbeque restaurant, there were specific, very detailed moments and conversations from those years in my life that I had recorded pretty extensively in the play. Reading back over the play years after writing it, I realized that I’d forgotten small details from those years, and rereading the play helped me remember.
MM: How was the project of working on a book-length work of nonfiction different than working on a book of poems? Were there surprising similarities or differences?
JK: I wrote the play “The Year of BBQ” in iambic pentameter, and so, in a way, I was thinking about the memories I write about in The Rib Joint with an attention to rhythm and sound for many years. So, there’s that similarity between writing this particular book-length work of nonfiction and writing a book of poems. But, in writing books of poems, I’m not really thinking about narrative arc or character development—whereas I think quite a lot about those things while working on creative nonfiction projects.
MM: Many of the essays in the book take a braided approach to exploring the form of the essay. Can you talk a bit about the flexibility that afforded you to explore seemingly disparate ideas on the page?
JK: Writing braided essays for this book allowed me to linger in the metaphorical possibilities of certain images, and that lingering led me to surprising connections in the pieces. When I wrote the titular essay for the book, for instance, the octopus thread came pretty late in the editing process. I wrote a scene about finding the octopus in my sugar jar only because I had made of list of all the possible variations of the rib that I might explore and research. I’d added “octopus” to my list because, in thinking about ribs, I thought about the absence of ribs, of skeletal systems. If I hadn’t been writing a braided essay, I don’t think I would have written about the octopus.
MM: So much of the book deals with your own coming of age story, but also involves family members and friends. Did you have any fears about what they might think about what you had to say?
JK: Yes. In working through those anxieties, I talked with other nonfiction writers, and some people told me not to ask for permission from the people in the book, that they could write their own book if they wanted to. I didn’t feel comfortable with that approach, though. I changed the names of the people in the book to protect their privacy, and then I sent each person in the book the chapters of the book that they are in and told them that if there was something that I’d written that they felt uncomfortable with, to let me know. While pretty much everyone told me they were glad that I’d changed their name, none of them asked me to take anything out of the book.
MM: Would you describe your research process for embedding tidbits of information into the larger body of your essays—and “Azalea” in particular?
JK: When I wrote “Azalea,” I went to the university library and looked up every book, every article, everything I could find that mentioned “azalea.” I searched the library’s online databases, as well. I sat at a small desk in the library with a stack of books and multiple tabs opened on my computer. I’d written a short draft of the essay and created an outline for scenes that I thought I might want to include, and then I read everything I could find about azaleas—from a gardening article in Southern Living, to an UPenn veterinarian article on poisonous plants, to an article in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology. I kept a separate bibliography document on my computer so I could refer back to different texts I found. I had a similar process when I wrote the other essays in the book, too. I also love to search the Oxford English Dictionary online as I’m drafting essay to see where the etymology of different words takes me. One difficult aspect of revision for this book was cutting out certain bits of research I’d found. I would often find something that really surprised me, and I wanted to find a way to fit it in the book, but sometimes a particular detail or thread didn’t work with the overall arc of the book, so I had to make some hard cuts in the revision process.
MM: Does music play a role in your literary life/writing process?
JK: Definitely. When I wrote The Rib Joint, I listened to music from different points in my life to help put me back into those moments. Sometimes I’d play the same song over and over again while I revised a scene. I think I listened to Bruce Springsteen’s “Secret Garden” about a hundred times. Music is a kind of time machine for me when I’m writing nonfiction. For a reading I did for an earlier draft of “When Pandora Was a Myth,” I played clips of different songs I mention in that essay. I sang part of a hymn from childhood, too. I grew up singing in the church choir every Sunday and playing guitar with my friends—which is something I talk about in the book—and because of that, I think, music and the repetition of certain refrains has always been central to my writing process. I’m working on a new creative nonfiction project about the villanelle—about queer desire, violence, narratives of loss that resist linear structures, obsession, Killing Eve, Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art”—and I think part of the reason I’ve been drawn to the villanelle form for so long is because in church I always loved singing rounds, songs where one group begins singing the song and then, as they begin the second line of the song, another group begins singing the first line, and then a third group joins, and so on. It is a form that celebrates echoes. It’s a form that continuously circles back, which is why I love writing and reading nonfiction so much—I get to circle back with people.
This interview was conducted by Alex Powell, who is a creative nonfiction editor of Miracle Monocle. Read an excerpt of The Rib Joint, "Azalea," in this issue of Miracle Monocle.